Food labels can be tricky and confounding to the untrained eye. And given the changing standards and the way the information is displayed on them, it could all add to your confusion!
But, reading and understanding food labels is more important than most people think. It can make all the difference. To begin with, it can make your shopping healthy. It can open your eyes to the possibilities, and sometimes some hidden information can come to light. And all this can help you make healthy decisions that are totally in sync with your health goals.
You know what, why don’t we do this together? I am sure it will be much easier this way.
What You are Doing Right
If you are like me, you persist in reading the smallest font off of every food label for every food item you purchase. You are careful and you are diligent. You research the system, as well as the meaning.
Needless to say, this is a great habit and a good place to start. Being aware of what you put into your body is a crucial step in eliminating unwanted foods. For example, all food packages contain information on the fat content, added sugars and salts, food additives and storage, production or manufacturing information. There may also be information for people with food allergies.
Here are the Must Do’s
At the very onset I would like to come out and say – what I consider most important is the list of INGREDIENTS displayed on the pack. For example, any foods that include fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and meats etc. are always better than something frozen in a box. You may want to be aware that many companies that make marketing claims on their products like “made with whole grains”, “no added sugar”, “low fat”, “high fibre” and “high in anti-oxidants” may require being researched and substantiated. You want foods that are local and in-season. The rule of thumb is to look for foods with FEWER ingredients, more whole foods, less added salts and preservatives and organic or sustainable produced stuff, that are produced using environmentally safe practices. Whew! That was a mouthful!
Buying from the local farmer’s markets where foodstuffs are fresh, locally produced and in-season is highly recommended!
How to Digest the Nutritional Information?
When you get into reading the labels themselves, there is a ton of information to absorb. The Nutritional Information Panel on the food label is the simplest way understand the saturated fat, salt, sugar and kilojoule content. It can help you decide how large your serve sizes and portions need to be.
Health Star Rating (HSR) system
The health star rating system has been developed specifically for use in Australia and New Zealand. It provides a clear, convenient and relevant way to understand nutritional information. At a glance, the overall rating of the healthiness of the food is reflected as a star rating, and the more the stars the healthier the choice of food is.
While the scale is indicative and provides an index for comparison, it is highly recommended that you don’t follow it blindly.
Here is a brief guide to reading the labels correctly:
PROTEIN: Ideally the protein in the food should be organic. Or if it is a food bar or protein bar, the protein must be sourced from brown rice, or hemp protein, as they are the healthier sources. Your aim should be to get 20-30g of protein during each meal.
FAT: Your fats should be sourced from organic meats, organic dairy, nuts, seeds and coconut. I would stay away from refined canola oil, sunflower oil and vegetable oils in general. Healthy fats from foods like avocado are a great addition to your diet.
SODIUM: Added salts are hard to avoid in cooked or precooked foods. Aim for under 500mg per meal and keep cutting back. For more information on how to control salt in your diet take a look at my blog post on salt from a while back.
CARBOHYDRATES: Aim to get less than 30g of net carbohydrates per meal. Net Carbs = Total Carbs – (minus) Fiber. The more fibre you have the better it is, especially soluble fibre. When looking at carbohydrates, bear in mind that there may be sugar in the food. You want to keep your sugar intake as low as possible.
If you do need your dose of sugar, I would recommend using raw honey, coconut sugar or maple syrup, but sparingly. For more information on how to control sugar in your diet take a look at my blog post on sugar from a few weeks ago.
Now, empowered with all this information, I first walk down the perimeter of the supermarket or better-still the farmers market, getting my vegetables, fruits, nuts and meats and then walking the aisle consciously picking foods with “fewer ingredients”. I scan for foods, reading food labels, now knowing the true difference between “real food” and “fake food”.